The Bike or the Electric Car- Clean Air a Right or an Opportunity? An Opportunity, grab it.

Some people simply just don’t see it. Start your journey here.

Here I revisit the two worlds I have been writing about for many years, cycle lanes and education. Nearly 10,000 connections in Linkedin. Thousands reading the same posts on my website

It may also inform the debate on the future of the Left in the UK and the USA on public accountability, lobbying and the tyranny of the minority; and when outcomes are more important than intentions.

I am no longer going to mince my words and get nowhere slowly.

There is a medical condition, age-related macular degeneration, AMD. It results in blurred, distorted vision or no vision at all in the centre of the visual field. Older people are its victims. There is a political equivalent. I call it PMD. Political Macular Degeneration. It too is age-related, to the young more than the old, but it can affect anyone. It too can totally obscure the centre of the visual field.

We live in a funny new world. When I was young, I played football, cricket and hopscotch in my war-time street, I cycled uphill to school. I golfed by the North Sea and hiked in the clean air of the Dales and the Lakes. I was one of three studying ancient Greek in my Grammar School in Sunderland – for those who don’t know it, a working-class town at the time. It was never thought that if I studied ancient Greek, everyone else in the school had to do so.

It never once occurred to me that I was exercising my human rights, and it was as near as I got to Utopia. I suppose I was pretty near it except for the war and sleeping in an air-raid shelter while the bombs were dropping outside, but at least I wasn’t interfering with anyone else’s rights at the time.

Is the world a better place now when others give me a human right to their Utopian Dreamworld and think that I should be grateful for it? They legitimise their claims with the heraldic emblem Ego Rampant, their motto “Semper über alles.” And they threaten to sue me for defamation if I criticise them.

In this world, alongside singular rights relating to suffrage, gender and colour, often there is a plurality of other human rights and their diversity, when equality does not apply. All that people can legitimately seek then is fair play, but that is often significant by its absence.

I shall demonstrate that when people invoke human rights and equality, time and again those are simply makeweight to argument, ballast or sometimes just plain balls pre-empting other people’s rights that are out of sight and out of mind; but should be taken into account.

As I write, the Financial Times under the heading “Children reclaim streets as cities rethink car bias” emphasises “Children had lost the right to play out where they live. We decided to reclaim that right.” It celebrates September 22 when London took part in a global car-free day which saw 27km of the capital’s roads closed and 385 play streets take place with no concern for the inconvenience to thousands of people and their livelihoods with normal activities disrupted. What, precisely, did this egocentric extravaganza achieve? What we they trying to prove? That we don’t need cars? What were they trying to provoke? The purchase of bicycles?

Listening to the cycle lobby you would think that the only way to keep fit and combat obesity is on a bicycle. Sport, swimming, hiking in the country, Yoga, Pilates and a work-out in the gym all offer another way, much safer and much healthier too in clean air now. Think of Clean Air as an opportunity not a Right and grab it.

Consider Sustrans, the cycling charity and cycling lobby. It does good work when it promotes safe cycling but not when it is not just a bull in the china shop, but in charge of it, funded by the State, reinforced by Statute, hired by local authorities at public expense to plan their roads. Amazing if you think about it.In SUSTRANS Annual Review 2013-2014 they say “ We think a street should be designed for residents rather than those driving through, with slower speeds and slower moving traffic , so people are more inclined to walk and cycle for their journeys, some or all of the way .”

Their vision “by 2020, four out of five local journeys will be made by bike, foot or public transport.”

I invite you to leave central London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam. Berlin, and head for Bristol and Newcastle, a very different world.

Bristol first where Sustrans has its head office, the UK’s first cycling city.

See how Sustrans has worked this out here. Over £23m spent. More cycles yes but sharing road space with them more not fewer cars – a 15% jump in the number of cars on the road from 165,334 in 2001 to 190,530 in 2011. And, surely not surprising, an increase in accidents to cyclists both in number and rate, up 39% from 2000 to 2014 and up 63% from 1994 to 2014, stats here from the Department of Transport. Our NHS could have done without that.

 £2.3million pounds spent on signs reducing 30mph to 20 mph. Journey times increased by 50% and emissions likewise. Vehicles are more efficient at higher speeds. Nearly 200 people die from these emissions every year in Bristol. And children are positively encouraged to cycle in them!

All of this in the name of the right to clean air.

Now come to Newcastle

Here these zanies, these amateur road planners, for that is what they surely are, with chronic PMD, have persuaded themselves that the only thing that stops motorists sharing their enthusiasm for cycling is the absence of cycle lanes. The late Bernard Levin had a cautionary name I can use for them “Single issue fanatics”.

Sustrans was hired by the Local Authority to bid for Government funds. They took a black crayon and marked on the main North/South arterial road a proposed new cycle lane. They patently gave no thought to the narrow width of the road, the activities around it and the rights of all those living, working, shopping, eating, enjoying their lives there. A cycle lane serving to further congest congestion. Mercifully the bit I objected to has been quietly dropped.

This, however was their strategic plan: Delivering cycling and improvement strategy in Newcastle – a 10-year strategy 2011-2022” included the following: “The overarching aim is to develop a cycling culture where 20% of all trips under five miles are undertaken by cycle by 2021.” Please read that again slowly and relate it to where you live.

The project manager wrote: “Currently there are less than 1,000 cyclists a day using the High street, but we want to see that grow so that 20% of all trips in Newcastle use this mode. Given that 30,000 vehicles use the Great North Road per day for return trips then it is not unreasonable to see that figure grow to 3 or 4 thousand return trips by bicycle.”

With remarkable precision they forecast “1,232,177” additional cycling trips in Newcastle. And they went on to say “This will be achieved by drawing up a list of ‘join up’ routes that are at present partially or completely isolated. Research by Sustrans (a National Cycling Charity) has shown that the most successfully spent money has been that on urban cycle paths.”

There cannot be a better illustration of PMD, political macular degeneration and wearing blinkers.

They are blind to the following although there to see.

1.     How few people actually cycle in Newcastle.

National Cycling to Work statistics showed an increase in Newcastle from 2001 to 2011 from 1,781 to 3,223, and the professional survey organised by Duncan Young, who heads up Sanderson Young, a local estate agent, detected only about 70 cyclists using the High Street daily, nothing like 1,000.

National stats suggest that cyclists are only 2% of all road users. I suspect that in the NE probably less than 1%.

And, not seeing why they choose not to cycle.

2.        Many access roads to cycle lanes will never have cycle lanes and trying to make them safer for cyclists by slowing down motoring there instead of trusting motorists to drive at safe speed is costly and entirely the wrong focus; many cycle lanes themselves will not be segregated and joined up – intermittent. Cycling dangerous and unhealthy on urban cycle lanes, even more so off them.

3.      Slow moving traffic increases the pollution and constantly braking makes it worse, yet they want slow moving traffic.

Non-exhaust particles can be generated either from non-exhaust sources such as brake, tyre, clutch and road surface wear or already exist in the form of deposited material at the roadside and become resuspended due to traffic-induced turbulence. Among non-exhaust sources, brake wear can be a significant particulate matter (PM) contributor, particularly within areas with high traffic density and braking frequency.

4.      They don’t see the weather forecasts, usually 5 degrees warmer in the South. Many times in a year it is wet, gusty, frosty and occasionally snowy. When they project future numbers of cyclists in an aging population, never mind fake figures, ‘phone for men in white coats. They may brave the weather in their Lycra and neoprene. Others don’t and won’t.

5.      Invisible, the facts that establish the risk of death and injury in urban cycling negating the belief that over £1bn committed on road improvements, education &c., and more to follow, will prevent it happening.

The Times recently reported a 43% increase in serious injuries to cyclists in UK in last ten years. The BBC recently reported 22,988 accidents including 80 deaths for cyclists in London in last 5 years with a £m of being spent on known accident blackspots that accounted for only 391 of them.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents ROSPA said that statistics show:

  •  Around 75% of fatal or serious cyclist accidents occur in urban areas
  • Around half of cyclist fatalities occur on rural roads
  • 75% happen at, or near, a road junction
  • 80% occur in daylight
  • 80% of cyclist casualties are male
  • Almost one quarter of the cyclists killed or injured are children
  • Around three quarters of cyclists killed have major head injuries

Hiring cycles to those who usually will not wear a helmet one risk too many.

And the number of accidents seven times under-stated.

6.      To get clean air the future is the electric car and not the bicycle.Do they see in less affluent areas the multitude of very narrow residential side streets, houses without garages, lined with parked cars on both sides, far from ideal for kids’ playstreets or for cycling?

Tuesday January 14, 2020 is an historic day. For the first time the Times editorial recognised the scale of what is now needed. “At the end of last year, 19 battery electric plug-in cars were available in car showrooms across the country. That number is set to more than double in 2020. Four of the new models will be sold for less than £20,000, and thus appeal to the mass market …Britain will need 25 million chargers by 2050 of which 2.6million would need to be in public places…. 2,300 charging points to be installed every day for the next 30 years.”

Those nurtured on Karl Marx’s Das Kapital may find it difficult to comprehend how capitalist America driven by the quest for profit can be so far ahead of the UK in its preparations for electric vehicles. Already 100 million Americans are within a fifteen-minute drive of a charging point.

20:20 Vision – Welcome Cars back to the High Street – Electric Cars

How? New multi-storey carparks. Drivers and passengers can enjoy the High Street while they charge their cars and autonomous taxis bringing passengers to the High Street can park there while they wait for their next customer instead of clogging up the streets.

This revolution could be an answer to shop closures in town and city centres and the loss to local authorities of the rates of the like of Debenhams, House of Fraser, John Lewis, Mothercare. Instead of driving cars out of town centres, welcome electric ones back in with new multi-story carparks.

Another quote from the Times on 14 January: “Research commissioned by the Independent Committee on Climate Change in 2018 concluded that the number of public chargers required for top-up charging needs to increase tenfold to more than 27,000 by 2030.”

This will need a generation of 21st Century professional town planners to replace those with PMD and a Government replacing the 2015 Infrastructure Act with a new Act and totally different financial commitments.

Meanwhile that is not the line of travel in Newcastle or in Bristol.

Sustrans has already encouraged the local authority to spend £18m on a cycle lane on John Dobson Street, now known locally as a skateboard park and further congesting congestion alongside it. Nearly 3 hours to exit an NCP car park into it!

Now to give residents on Tyneside a right to clean air it has announced its intention to put bus/cycle lanes on the Tyne Bridge. This is one of the two main bridges across the Tyne for all vehicles, the two lanes for traffic reduced to single lanes. And it is a pinch point.

On the South side Sage Gateshead Norman Foster/Arup’s magnificent contribution to NE musical culture. If I want to eat there before a concert or celebrity visit, at 5pm I give myself 45 minutes to join the mile-long tail back of commuters through three underpasses leading to the Bridge. If I eat at home and leave at 7pm, I get there in under 10 minutes. Constricting traffic on the bridge will make rush hour conditions permanent and polluted air worse especially where there are underpasses. Those familiar with the cycle lane going East on the Embankment road north of the Thames will be familiar with the danger.

And Bristol again – another blow for their High Street –  on BBC News November 19, 2019 “A plan to ban diesel cars in Bristol has been criticised by concerned residents and described as “stupid”. On Tuesday the city became the first UK city to propose such a ban in a bid to reduce air pollution. The ban on privately owned diesel cars from a central zone in the daytime is due to start in 2021 after an outline plan was approved by the city council.

The authority says it is necessary in order to meet a legal obligation to reduce air pollution. But the plan has led to concerns from some people, including local residents, business owners and hospital visitors.”

The Sustrans’ touch – taxes, tolls and speed restrictions?

I can forecast the consequence. When new electric cars come on the market, the wealthier with bigger houses and garages fitted out with fast chargers will buy them. Meanwhile those least able to afford replacement vehicles, parking their diesels on the road without a garage, will have to ride a bike. That, of course, is the plan.

I now return briefly to education

It is a different version of the same story, driven by dogma not pragma, there is a singular right to equality of opportunity to go to a university,  especially for the disadvantaged, when for very many others there should be a plurality of rights to something entirely different. Driven by Inclusion and the pursuit of equality, the policy is to homogenise all of them and blame lack of money for the consequences.

Ever since my involvement in special needs I have taken the Times Educational Supplement. What I have written in my play, my book and my website Death of a Nightingale has found no echo there. PMD I guess.

I have revisited the Prologue of the book. It bears a striking resemblance to what I write here about cycle lanes.

Let me illustrate quite precisely what I am saying. I have just read in the last issue of TES under the heading “Saying ‘Au revoir’ to French and ‘auf Wiedersehen’ to German”, the secondary head of a London High School writing this: “Teaching students in an English speaking school Mandarin and Spanish means that they get to study the top three most widely spoken languages in the world. That must be a good thing. Having settled on Mandarin and Spanish I had to consider who would be eligible for these languages. This was an easy decision. We are a truly inclusive school and we believe that everyone can access the same curriculum, given the proper support.”

Would one of the tens of thousands of NTAs recruited to help teachers cope with children with special education needs qualify “as proper support”? Might there be some hyper-active attention deficit activity in the classroom? A case for Ritalin perhaps. Might it be necessary to exclude or off-roll – I word I never heard when I was at school – one or two to help school performance stats?

Do you need an explanation why school disturbances are logged by the hundred? The Times reports £400m school funds diverted …with limited places in special schools there are more pupils in mainstream schools who need extensive support. “Well, they closed over a hundred of them in the UK in the name of Inclusion.

Is it any wonder there is increasing drug and knife culture?

And, of course, skill shortages filled by raiding other countries.

Yes, ideally, every child a right to learn Mandarin but also, ideally, some with another right to learn something entirely different.

An alternative curriculum with an education in life skills, including music, the arts, culinary skills & dietary know-how. Design appreciation. Domestic science. A conversational foreign language. Sport and fitness. Civics. World Faiths. The computer and the Internet and, yes, intelligent games. These are all squeezed out by the core curriculum.

Not equal. Different. Schools for the kids, not the other way around. Lessons that they will look forward to. Sorry, you must do some selecting and there may be some segregation but at least Darwin would have seen the logic and Germany doesn’t appear to have suffered from it.

Bin the aim to give every child equal worth. Simply recognise their intrinsic value – each and every one of them – that is what they are to their parents – and give them a feel for it. In one word, self-esteem.

I am not sure that opticians can provide the total answer for the educational establishment.


 Please share with your friends and colleagues.

20 January 2020

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